“Reach Delhi! Beat drums! Wake up governments!”
These slogans rent the air as people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project reached Jantar Mantar in large numbers on 17-18 July. Their demands included rehabilitation and compensation for the affected people. They also protested against the Centre’s decision to increase the height of the dam by 17 metres. The activists threatened to commit jal samadhi (death by drowning) if it goes ahead with the plan.
Unfortunately, such threats, repeated over the last three decades, did not deter the government from constructing the dam. And this was despite a report of a team of experts from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) exposing how the project had disregarded several ecological factors. The fight is now against corruption in compensation for the displaced and increasing the dam’s height. A number of rallies, dharnas, indefinite fasts, agitations, public meetings and padyatras have been held during this period even as the government tried to hush up the matter.
The movement has had its share of victories. Owing to it, rehabilitation of the displaced prior to launching such projects has become a subject of debate. Other social effects of the projects have also been highlighted by the movement. Its greatest achievement is that it questioned the environmental and current development model at an intellectual level and brought it to the international forum for discussion.
Under the Narmada Valley Development Project, 30 major and 135 medium sized dams were planned on the river, which included giant projects such as the Sardar Sarovar and Maheswar dams. In 1985, the World Bank announced a loan of $450 million for the project. Four years later, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) erupted in the form of a mass movement. It brought the project under the scanner and demanded reconsideration.
Over 30 years, the movement, along with rehabilitation and resettlement issues, it has continued to raise several other environmental and biological concerns about factors affecting public health.
In 1994, a World Bank expert team conducted a survey of the Narmada Valley and reported several irregularities. It found that the impact of the project on the environment had not been properly assessed. Moreover, it said, displacement and rehabilitation could not be efficiently carried out with the existing methods. As a result, the World Bank withdrew the loan. This was a major victory for the movement. The Union government, however, went ahead with the original plan of dam construction despite the C also raising environmental concerns.
The Sardar Sarovar project was completed in December 2006 and inaugurated by Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister.
The NBA claims that the project affected nearly 3,20,000 lives. The submergence area of Indira Sagar dam covered 255 villages, including the 700-year-old district of Harsud near Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. Harsud was feared to be submerged during the monsoon of 2004. Therefore, the village was evacuated on 30 June without prior rehabilitation of the displaced.
Hundreds of activists from across the country — human rights crusaders, environmentalists, writers, intellectuals, film and media personalities, students, women, tribals, farmers and many others — have joined the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, who is also part of the movement, debated the issue in depth in her book The Cost of Living. In 2006, Aamir Khan lent support to Medha Patkar in her struggle for rehabilitation and resettlement of the project-affected. He personally went to meet the activists, after which he was widely criticised. Gujarat even imposed a state-wide ban on his film Fanaa.
Despite differences, the movement’s leadership has never resorted to petty politics or indulged in a blame game. They treat different approaches with respect and call it a division of labour.
How far has the movement succeeded in achieving its goals? And though the demands have been toned down over the decades, can the issue be trivialised?
Rehmat, a member of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a research organisation monitoring water and energy issues in Madhya Pradesh, has been part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan for the past 11 years and has been personally affected by the project. He says, “In totality, an evaluation would reveal that even though the construction of the dam could not be stopped, the movement has had a comprehensive impact. It is no longer easy to forcefully evict people from their land. Prior to NBA, there was no policy for land compensation. The extent of insensitivity was such that when the issue of rehabilitation was raised by NBA, the government did not even have the figures for people affected by the project. The movement forced the government to offer land as compensation to people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project, though several lacunae remain. The Andolan has had a larger impact as it created awareness about several other issues. People have learnt to fight for their rights.”
Abdul Jabbar, who has been a crusader for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims for decades, shares Rehmat’s views. “The dam was built but it has opened debates surrounding other such projects. The harm of such giant projects has become a subject of debate internationally. It is a major achievement. People in hundreds of villages now know the importance of a movement and how to stand up for their rights even if it means fighting the system,” he says.
“The movement has united activists across the country and inspired other movements,” says Shankar Tadwale, convener of Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan. “It brought the tragedy of displaced lives to the country’s notice and forced the governments to change their attitude towards rehabilitation.”
Former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, Sharad Chandra Behar, who has also been part of the nba says, “The movement that raised its voice against the so-called model of development is the first example that shows how to protest against such major projects which were earlier accepted without question.